Substack's Nazi newsletters

5/1/2024

In November 2023, The Atlantic denounced the existence of explicitly Nazi newsletters on Substack, some of them offering paid subscriptions.

This means that Substack hosts, promotes and makes money from Nazi newsletters.

On December 21, the three co-founders of Substack posted a note saying they do not intend to moderate such newsletters, except when they incite violence.

For Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi, banning, limiting revenue sources or even not promoting Nazi newsletters would be the same as censoring them, which, in their view, would only make the problem worse.

“We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power,” they wrote.

For this twisted logic, the six million Jews murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust lacked persuasion.

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Substack is covered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CTA), the American 1996 law that exempts online platforms from liability for what their users publish.

Contrary to other countries, in the United States, where Substack is based, Nazi manifestations aren’t a felony.

Meta, TikTok, the old Twitter, and other online platforms at least try (or pretend) to moderate illicit or questionable content on their own for two reasons: public perception and money.

Most people and governments around the world do not like to share space with declared Nazis, racists and other bad guys. On the other hand, companies do not want to have their ads served next to reprehensible content, a scenario that puts their brands and revenue at risk.

By its business model, Substack only needs to worry about the first group — or not even that, as you can see.

The startup does not depend on advertising, that is, on other companies, to make money. It only does when people subscribed to newsletters hosted there become paying subscribers. For intermediation, it grabs 10% of the gross revenue.

Still, Substack’s content guidelines forbids incitement to violence.

“Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition,” it reads.

For the co-founders of Substack, however, violence is not a value inherent in Nazi ideology, and this is less dangerous than pornography, another type of content forbidden by the guidelines and that, unlike Nazism, is promptly banned.

In the past, Substack used the argument that it offers infrastructure not to moderate content. To use the example of Casey Newton, a technology journalist and owner of one of Substack’s most prominent newsletters, the startup would be what Microsoft is in relation to Word: no one blames it or demands measures from Microsoft when someone writes a Nazi manifesto in Word.

Today, this argument is not sustainable. The moment Substack starts promoting newsletters and launches a Twitter clone with a feed based on a recommendation algorithm, the service changes. It’s no longer infrastructure, it’s a platform. And with that, it attracts to itself the need to moderate content.

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It’s no surprise that some people who bet on Substack are uncomfortable with the situation. That it’s not new, it’s worth remembering. In April 2023, Chris Best, co-founder and CEO of Substack, said in a podcast that the service accepts racist newsletters.

More than 240 people who use Substack, many of them renowned, signed an open letter to the founders of Substack asking them to reconsider their position in relation to Nazi newsletters.

Casey Newton has met with the startup management and has already warned that if nothing changes, he will leave Substack.

There are other newsletter services, that is, there is nothing preventing someone from leaving Substack. For those who are established and already have many subscribers, it’s a valid path. For the rest of us, it’s complicated.

If your newsletter hosted on Substack is free of charge, as in if you don’t offer paid subscriptions, the service is also free for your and without limitations.

No competitor can offer such conditions because they are unsustainable. They only work there because of venture capital infusions and a crowdfunding ran in early 2023. Until when, no one knows. I suspect that, when only they are left using the Substack, the few Nazis writes that the co-founders are protecting now will not be able to pay the bill.

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